Emily Joy reviews Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Niamh Murphy had me with the title: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood. I didn’t need any more incentive to purchase this for my Kindle. Whenever there’s a new book with the promise of both lesbians and Robin Hood, I am bound to read it. My two primary reading interests are Robin Hood and lesbian literature, so there’s no getting around it. To my knowledge, this is the second lesbian retelling of Robin Hood. Or in this case, Robyn. (Marian by Ella Lyons is the other lesbian retelling, if you’d like to check it out!) Fair warning that I am a huge Robin Hood nerd, and this review reflects that.

Robyn Fitzwarren is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Loxley, just outside of Sherwood Forest. Marian de Staynton lives in the neighboring baronage of Leaford, and the two are childhood friends, and very close. Shortly after Robyn’s father departs on crusade with King Richard, a new sheriff is appointed over Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and things start to turn sour. Robyn, feeling responsible for the well-being of her family, enters the sheriff’s archery tournament, determined to win two hundred silver so that her family can pay the unfair taxes levied against them. However, in an unpredictable string of events, Robyn finds herself and her family in danger.

You might notice that my plot synopsis included very little about Marian, and that’s because Marian, and her relationship with Robyn is not a primary focus for this book. Instead it focuses almost exclusively on Robyn’s commitment to her family, and her efforts to protect them from the sheriff. I like that the book does not ignore the existence of families and parents, as some YA books tend to do.

However, I have to admit that the title led me to believe that Marian would have a greater role to play, or at least that the romance would be explored. As it is, Robyn and Marian kiss only once, and Marian is only present in maybe ten scenes. Most of the romantic narrative comes in the form of Robyn thinking about her while Robyn is hiding out in Sherwood Forest.

There are some very sweet moments, including one where Robyn goes to sleep in Marian’s bed seeking comfort and safety. It was so sweet that I nestled down deeper into my pillow with a silly grin. Sadly, such scenes are not in abundance in this book.

In some ways, the lack of focus on the romance between them is refreshing. It gives their relationship time to develop at a much slower speed, which feels natural in many ways. But with “a lesbian retelling” in the subtitle of the book, I definitely expected more. A second book is in the works, and I’m hoping Marian will have a bigger role next time.

Niamh Murphy makes some interesting choices with the traditional Robin Hood story, especially with her sheriff. In fact, the sheriff seems like a genuinely nice guy! He is in favor of good sportsmanship and prefers to play by the rules. Rather than the sheriff as a primary antagonist, it is his wife, Maud, who seeks power and revenge. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes work that Maud does to overtax and harm the people of Nottingham goes unseen, and the sheriff gets most of the blame. He eventually does take on some of his more traditional characteristics, but I appreciated the slight departure from the usual inherently villainous sheriff.

Speaking of the sheriff, he is named for the same historical sheriff who was in power during King Richard’s absence! As soon as I read the name “William de Wendenal”, I had to smile. She also made use of the pagan character, “Green Man”, sometimes associated with Robin Hood, and instead applied Green Man-like qualities to her Little John character. Niamh Power did her research for many of the details in this book! My Robin Hood nerd heart was indeed happy. There is even a glossary linked at the end (although not included in the book itself) which explains some of the people, things, and locations mentioned in the book. While some Robin Hood books tend to be more medieval fantasy than historical fiction, I think Outlaw rest somewhere comfortably in between.

That being said, the book includes such language as “thee”, “thou”, and “art” to preserve a medieval style of speech and dialect. Personally, I found this to be more distracting than immersive, and it didn’t work for me. Things like “Cover me arse, will thou?” and other similar phrases didn’t sit well with me in the way they blend modern speech with older English. The writing itself, outside of the dialogue, also has a modern voice, and skipping from modern to older, while not difficult to follow, didn’t feel cohesive.

Sadly, Robyn didn’t work for me as a character. I didn’t feel like I understood her choices, and when something went wrong, her reactions felt over the top. The whole book felt like a competition for which new thing was the Worst Thing To Ever Happen, and resulted in Robyn having a breakdown every fifty pages or so. She was the main character, and was supposed to be a version of Robin Hood, but she wasn’t much of a hero. I don’t mind unlikely heroes, but the way she would constantly break down and then run away from friends and family because they “couldn’t understand” and she “had to deal with it alone” felt immature rather than vulnerable. It certainly didn’t come across as strength, either. I didn’t even particularly care enough to root for her most of the time, largely due to a lack of believability.

As a Robin Hood retelling, I do think this one works better than Marian by Ella Lyons. The Robin Hood elements are there, and used to guide and inform the story. As a Robin Hood enthusiast, I enjoyed this! It does interesting things with the legend, and some smaller details of the lore and history are included. If you’re specifically looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, this might work for you. For casual readers, however, I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea.

Emily Joy reviews Tokyo Love by Rica Takashima

Tokyo Love

Trigger warning for some transphobia

In Tokyo Love, Rica Takashima explores a semi-autobiographical story of recently-out college-age lesbian, and what it was like to be queer in Tokyo in the 1990s before dating apps and online LGBTQ communities became more commonplace. This book is an omnibus of a serial manga she created originally for the lesbian magazine Anise(now defunct), and includes later chapters published after Anise was discontinued.

Tokyo Love follows a young woman named Rica (not to be confused with the author) after she first comes to Tokyo for college and ventures into Shinjuku Ni-choume, Tokyo’s gay district. Rica is adorably naïve and genuine and full of enthusiastic curiosity. She quickly meets an art student named Miho, and through the rest of the manga, Miho is her Ni-choume guide, and eventual girlfriend. Focusing primarily on their relationship, Tokyo Love showcases Japanese lesbian experiences in short episodic doses.

All and all, I found this book to be cute and fun. Some of the best parts of this book are in some of the earliest chapters where readers learn along with Rica about Ni-choume and Japanese lesbian bar culture. Although I live in Japan, I don’t particularly enjoy bars and haven’t gotten up my introvert courage to visit Ni-choume. This manga was fascinating, and I loved enjoying it from the quiet of my own apartment.

Although this is not necessarily a “coming out” story, over the course of the manga, Rica experiences many “firsts” of her lesbian experience, allowing the narrative to explore different topics like bar culture, having sex for the first time, her first girlfriend, and discovering LGBTQ community. Despite all these first experiences, Rica is already sure and established in her sexuality and attraction to women, and there isn’t any of the coming out drama that might otherwise be included.

Chapters are also included which show Rica and Miho’s respective childhoods and first feelings of attraction towards other girls, which is a nice addition.

My only major criticism of Tokyo Love is the depiction of a trans woman in one of the chapters. Rica meets a woman at a college mixer, and they agree to go on a date. However, when Rica suggests they end the night at a women-only bar, her date declines, fearing that she hasn’t “perfected her female body” enough to go inside. After realizing that her date is assigned male at birth, Rica responds in a thought bubble, “You’re a man!” It’s played off as very lighthearted and comical, and Rica’s date doesn’t seem upset in the least, but it was a rather jarring experience for me as the reader.  While not stated outright, this seems to end the potential for another date, and the character is never mentioned again.  It was a very disappointing scene, in an otherwise good manga. And although there isn’t anything offensive in the rest of the book, this chapter might have been enough for me to think poorly of it as a whole.

Despite being left with a sour taste in my mouth from that chapter, the rest of the manga was mostly enjoyable. The art is cute, and although the story became a bit dull for me at a certain point, I still enjoyed it for what it was, and read it until the end. If you are curious about the experience of being a lesbian in Japan in the 90s, you might consider this one.

If you’d like to read Tokyo Love, the publisher has made it free online, and you can read it and download it as a PDF: http://www.yuricon.com/yuriconalc/RTKO/files/inc/1218031951.pdf You can also purchase a Kindle edition on Amazon, but I don’t recommend it, because the text is sometimes too small or blurry to read, but is clear on the PDF!

Emily Joy reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeannette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for sexual assault and pedophilia

I must first admit that I am new to Jeanette Winterson’s books. Previously, I’ve only read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I know that she is a well-known lesbian author. Otherwise, I don’t know much. I picked up The Daylight Gate because I wanted to know more, and, as a historical fiction lover, I was drawn to this book, and hoped that it might get me started in the right direction. In the end, I think this book is more of an outlier for her works.

This review contains very mild spoilers, but I have been careful to preserve the twists as much as possible.

The Daylight Gate is a highly fictionalized account of the witch trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. Alice Nutter is a wealthy female landowner, and although no one quite knows her age, she is regarded as beautiful. She is a private person, and mysterious even for those who know her. This novella follows several characters, but ultimately it is about how two young women become involved with each other and with black magic, and how that relationship results in a dungeon full of suspected witches.

When I picked this up, I was imagining something akin to books I’ve read about the Salem witch trials⁠ — innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately finding themselves caught up on the wrong side of a rumor. The Daylight Gate is not that. It is the opposite of that. This is a book about black magic, and what happens when two young women become involved in it.

The two young women I mention were previously lovers, and their lives intertwine throughout this book, bringing many surprising twists and unexpected revelations for the reader. I honestly couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the reader experience while figuring out the twists was one of the best things about this book.

[We] were lovers and we lived as lovers, sharing one bed and one body. I worshipped her. Where I was shy, she was bold, and where I was hesitant, she was sure. I learned life from her and I learned love from her as surely as I learned astrology and mathematics from John Dee and necromancy from Edward Kelley.

Their relationship is never perfect, and I could not bring myself to care about them as a couple even in the beginning. My apathy towards them seemed justified when one eventually turns to black magic, and in a bargain for her soul, sacrifices the other to “the Dark Gentleman”, for him to rape. So… that was a bit startling.

This rape is not the only one in the book. Rape is treated as very commonplace, and occurs or is mentioned in nearly every chapter. While I wouldn’t have minded the griminess and violence of this novella, the constant presence of rape was unsettling in a way that made the book itself unenjoyable for me. There is a young girl who is abused terribly by her family, and particularly by her brother who takes her with him when goes out to “pay for his drink”. I don’t want to talk about this at length, but it is worth noting that the man who rapes this girl most often is later revealed to be her father, which some readers may want to know before choosing to read this book.

Other aspects of this book, while disturbing, are not unbearable, and suit the genre. Horror is meant to illicit a physical response in readers, and this book definitely succeeded in that. The (nonsexual) violence and rather horrific magic made me shudder, which I think is a success in the horror genre.

There is also a general feeling of despair and inevitability throughout the narrative. It feels as though the idea of the “dark ages”, usually applied to the early Middle Ages, has instead been transported to the Renaissance. Everyone is unhappy, dirty, abused, and starving. Which, while that isn’t necessarily untrue of many people during this time period, this book seems to exaggerate in order to create a truly bleak existence. This kind of atmosphere, although it felt inaccurate, was compelling, and I read this book in one sitting.

As for the magic, it is truly thrilling and terrifying. As I stated earlier, I picked this up assuming it would be about innocent people caught in a rumor, and the beginning of this book does lead you to believe that the people involved are ultimately innocent. As the book progresses, however, the amount and shock value of the magic only grows, and definitely helps make this book a page-turner.

This book is a blend of horror and historical fiction, and if that is your cup of tea, you might enjoy it more than I did. While its good qualities do not outweigh the bad for me, it did keep my interest, and it might keep yours, as well.